President Martin Torrijos’ Velvet Panamanian Coup

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

For more information on this piece over the Labor Day weekend, please call 202-215-3473.

  • Torrijos uses subterfuge to militarize the National Security Posture.
  • Patriots rally on September 3 against Torrijos’ wanton indifference to democratic procedures.
  • State Department is conspicuously silent over Torrijos’ plots.

On September 3, a number of Panamanian civic groups and political movements have scheduled a nationwide protest against the recently enacted five-pronged National Security Reform package. President Martin Torrijos and his Cabinet approved what essentially was a presidential edict, during the National Assembly’s two-month recess. In effect, President Torrijos has staged a velvet coup, weakening the Constitutional rights of individual Panamanians. Torrijos granted himself “special legislative powers,” allowing him to rule by decree in the areas of anti-crime and anti-terrorism. The President possesses plenary powers allowing him to rush through a series of security measures that had the effect, according to his critics, of dangerously militarizing the country.

Of particular note, on August 18, the eleven-member Cabinet Council approved the creation of the National Intelligence and Security Service (SENIS) and the modification of Article 41 of the National Police Law, to allow former military officers to be named as Chief of the National Police Force. Two days later, the remaining three Torrijos reforms were passed, consolidating the Air Service, Coast Guard, and Navy into the Aeronaval National Service, creating the National Border Patrol, and reorganizing the Council on Public Security and National Defense as a separate entity. Taken together, the reform package represents an ominous, if not alarming, development in the rapid remilitarization of Panama. This was precisely the point of General Ruben Dario Paredes when he cautioned against a growth in the country’s military.

Citizens’ Reactions
Even though civic groups, distinguished citizens and public figures have condemned Torrijos for diminishing free speech, Torrijos strongly defended the reforms as necessary “in order to have a more secure country.” He cited terrorism and other national security concerns as justification for granting him increased powers. Ricardo Quijano, a representative from the opposition Cambio Democrático (CD), insisted that the reforms “are not the solution to the severe security problems for Panamanians and appear to be a political strategy for the government.”

Even though the executive does not have the authority to invalidate the reforms, presidential candidates Guillermo Endara (himself a former president) of the Vanguardia Moral de la Patria Party, Juan Carlos Varela of the Panameñista Party and Ricardo Martinelli of the CD all agreed that upon their inauguration, they would move to repeal them. The fact that civic leaders from across Panama’s political spectrum (with the exception of the one-third of the electorate loyal to the Democratic Revolutionary Party -PRD), all promised to reject the new security reforms, indicates that much of the public passionately believe that the decrees are unconstitutional, unwise, and will prove very costly to the nation’s regional reputation.

Special Non-Legislative Powers
The National Assembly granted Torrijos “special legislative powers” for two months, beginning in June 2008, to help him address Panama’s professed security crisis. Under these auspices, Torrijos and Minister of Government and Justice Daniel Delgado Diamante drafted the five decrees of the National Security Reform package. Section XII of the Panamanian Constitution prohibits the country from fielding a formal army except when an imminent danger exists on the national level, in which case the armed forces can “organize temporarily … special police protection on the border and within Panama’s legal jurisdiction.” The creation of an autonomous Aeronaval National Service, a National Border Patrol under the newly created National Customs Authority, as well as SENIS, expressly contradicts this section of the Constitution, because any temporary Panamanian protection force must be formed only as a component of the National Police Force. Panamanians have a good reason to fear the prospects of the growth of the National Border Patrol and SENIS into a possible restraint on citizen’s rights, with the Patrol likely to reflect reorganizing of the Noriega-era Panamanian Defense Force and SENIS into a CIA-type secret intelligence agency.

Vilma de Luca, Director of the National Customs Authority, which now also oversees the Border Patrol, speculated that the reconstructed department will require a budget of $30 million in 2008 and $40 million in 2009, in order to modernize and maintain its recently developed procedures and newly acquired technologies. With Panama’s dollarized economy experiencing an inflation rate of 9.7 percent and a projected rate of 7.8 percent in the upcoming fiscal year, the investment of approximately $70 million over the next several years in just one of five major “temporary” programs, signals a far from prudent fiscal policy for the country.

Sovereignty of the Constitution
Even though Torrijos was granted Special Legislative Powers, no rule-by-decree status allows the executive to contradict the Constitution, whatever its limitations. On May 13, the president installed a former military officer, Jaime Ruiz, as Chief of the National Police, although the Constitution prohibits such an appointment. Even with the amendment to the article allowing the president to name an ex-military officer as a future chief of the National Police Force, Article 43 still bans the retroactive application of any law. Therefore, any appointment of a former military official to a command position of the National Police before August 18, 2008, is unconstitutional.

Critics of the new reforms anguish over the consolidation of unwarranted power in the executive branch of the Torrijos government. All of the newly established or reconstituted protective agencies are accountable only to the president. The reforms alter how intelligence agencies are defined so as to bypass the 2002 Transparency Law. This consolidation of power into the hands of the chief executive does not oblige the State to disseminate all of the necessary information on such matters to the public.

Getting Things through the Back Door
Torrijos inaccurately claims that he has created accountability procedures for monitoring the newly established or reconstructed national security agencies. On August 15, the legal period of the consultas, an overlooked town meeting-type gathering where Panamanian citizens can, theoretically, challenge and question upcoming legislation, expired. While this institution might appear to satisfy the opposition’s demands to be able to voice its discontent, there is a lack of transparency regarding the recent use of consultas. In a true consultative process, the executive would call on the National Assembly as well as ordinary citizens to discuss the upcoming legislation. Torrijos conveniently caricatures this procedure by rendering it impossible to be carried out because of the introduction of the security-related decrees setting up the new institutions.

Under Torrijos, the resurrection of the consultas seemed like a direct way for citizens to communicate their misgivings to the chief executive. But instead, they became a psychological ploy that gave participants the illusion of being able to air their discontent but without the remotest prospect of being able to bring to bear any real influence over national policy. Actually, the cabinet took heed of only one of the many dissident opinions voiced. Dilio Arcia, Minister of the Presidency, indicated on August 20, that the President will send to the Assembly for its consideration a proposal on the “articles referring to fundamental guarantees” that originally were in the proposal decree establishing SENIS, which remains the most dangerous of the new agencies.

Panama’s Habitual Deference to Washington
On July 7, 2008, the aforementioned Delgado Diamante, who formerly was Colonel of Noriega’s PDF, traveled to the United States to “offer officials from the United States [Panama’s] vision for regional security and Panama’s role in the international struggle against narcotrafficking and organized crime.” During the four-day trip, he met with government, military, and police officials in Washington, Miami, and Fort Benning, Georgia, including Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Dr. Richard Downie of the National Defense University’s Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, as well as officials form the United States Southern Command (SouthCom), Coast Guard, DEA, FBI, and the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly the School of the Americas). The visit came just four days after Panama City announced its decision against seeking to lease out any of its military facilities to the U.S. as a replacement for the soon-to-be vacated Manta Air Force Base in Ecuador.

Following his U.S. trip, Minister Delgado Diamante claimed to “not ask for anything.” Shortly thereafter, however, SouthCom sent a Green Berets unit to train ground forces to help provide the radar cover that Panama requested from Washington in May 2008. This is not the first time that the Bush administration has provided support for a supposedly non-existent Panamanian military. The U.S. also provided a $650,000 military training grant to Panama in 2007 in addition to supplying a $4 million grant to support anti-narcotrafficking initiatives during the same fiscal year. In fact, Gates wrote to the two delegates representing the U.S. Congress, that the Panamanian Police Force was “an army, all but in name,” recalling the need to have some kind of an armed military in Panama following Operation Just Cause.

Torrijos limited the scope of his diplomatic initiatives that he would unleash at the United States when preparing to implement his security reform package back in Panama. In doing so he took advantage of Washington’s absorption in the terrorism issue. One of the limited formal outreach initiatives by the U.S. to Latin American and Caribbean countries was via Panamax 2008, a SouthCom-sponsored annual training exercise. Seventeen countries, including the U.S. and Panama, are currently participating in the exercise. Commander Robert Durand, director of public relations of SouthCom and its media contact person for the routine training drill, told the Panamanian newspaper La Estrella de Panamá that the August exercises “are a great success.” The Aeronaval National Service, one of the institutions created by the reform package, has had its first test in Panamax 2008 – stressing international cooperation, high training standards, and internal organization.

Torrijos justifies his highly controversial reforms in large part because “the Colombian military is pushing the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) so hard,” that they are illegally transferring their operations to Panama, causing Torrijos a big problem and helping to destabilize the isthmian nation. A multilateral meeting involving Colombia and its immediate neighbors, such as Panama, would be in order due to the illicit growing narcotrafficking on the part of the FARC through Panama, as well as its widespread practice of kidnapping. The next step in increasing regional cooperation and in gathering intelligence to more effectively confront the hemisphere’s powerful criminal gangs, terrorist networks, leftist groups and smugglers, is to engage in regular consultation, and not necessarily have to commission explosive irregular measures.

Who Are the Reforms Really Going to Serve?
On August 18, the very day that two of the five desired reform initiatives were integrated by the Torrijos Cabinet, the Panamanian leader exclaimed, “democracy also means that the people participate in the decision making process.” This statement is morosely ironic, considering that the Torrijos reforms have created a profound wave of popular dissent among Panamanians, who are now being perceived as exclusionary. Conveniently timed for the summer recess of the 78-member National Assembly, the unconstitutional restructuring and expansion of Section XII of that document will inject approximately $12 million in anti-narcotrafficking and anti-crime funding into the country, mainly from the U.S.-Mexican Merida initiative. If the previous allocation by the Andean counter-drug initiatives of $4.5 million in 2006 and $4 million in 2007 was insufficient and poorly managed, how will the international community effectively monitor the increased funding?

Miguel Antonio Bernal, a distinguished professor at the University of Panama, as well as a highly-regarded human rights activist, has denounced the structure of the proposed security reforms, as has civil critic and editor of the Panamanian News, Eric Jackson, who repeatedly challenged Torrijos’ actions. On August 19, reflecting on the crime problem, Jackson stated that if “the Panamanian people want a real solution to the problem of delinquency, one that requires better education, prevention, reintroduction, rehabilitation, and definitive halting of the impunity that has characterized the government’s actions,” then they will have to take action through measures hardly reflected in Torrijos’ so-called reforms.

The recent militarization of Panama has been largely overlooked by the U.S. media, even though it begs the question of how Torrijos got this far. Marcos Wilson Jr., a well-connected Panamanian living in Washington D.C., wisely told COHA: “No one was really looking at what Torrijos and his Partido Revolucionario Democrático (PRD) were really about. We did not get here all of a sudden. The president did not wake up one morning and say that [he was] going to militarize the country.” Roberto Eisenmann, hero of the anti-Noriega struggle and a highly regarded businessman, has also lifted his rhetorical guard against Torrijos’ militarization plans.

It is time to keep a closer eye on Panama. The country’s democratic institutions are too vulnerable for them to easily weather the storm of Torrijos’ reforms. Instead of pushing for the remilitarization of the country, Torrijos needs to vastly increase transparency within his administration by allowing the elected representatives to determine the need for security reform, and begin creating alternative, more socially responsible means of addressing the nation’s increased crime rates and drug trafficking.